Brockovich not likely returning to Fort Smith

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 93 views 

More residents and property owners will soon join two lawsuits previously filed against Whirlpool that seek relief for property damage caused by potentially cancer-causing trichloroethylene (TCE) that Whirlpool admits leaked into the groundwater in and near its former manufacturing facility in Fort Smith.

The news comes on the same day that Debbie Keith, a resident who has been a vocal critic of Whirlpool and solicited the assistance of famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich, said the Brockovich firm would not be coming back to the area and would no longer be a part of the fight against the home appliance maker.

Ross Noland, an attorney with the Little Rock-based McMath Woods Law Firm, said an amended complaint to the one filed in Sebastian County Circuit Court on May 23 would likely be filed within weeks.

"It's no secret that we're about to amend our complaint. We're about to double or triple the number of complaints," he said.

And according to Ketih, that may be the reason Brockovich is pulling out of Fort Smith.

"I've been working with them (the Brockovich firm) all along. But there are local attorneys from Little Rock and Fayetteville that have hit the ground running. They have solicited neighbors and tied up about 60% of the residents."

She said she would not want Brockovich to come back if it was not going to be something in which residents would participate. She said questionnaires were prepared by Brockovich and presented to all residents affected by the plume, but none were returned. People, Keith said, were intimidated by the 18-page document. Keith also made clear that Brockovich was not going to "step on anyone's toes" to represent clients in what could be a long, drawn out battle with Whirlpool.

"Erin and (her colleagues) aren't here to step on anyone's toes and they aren't going to fight about who is going to represent the neighborhood. They are too busy and they don't have to do it."

It was only June 19 when Brockovich herself called The City Wire to respond to an article questioning the firm's perceived lack of communication or action since her first trip to Fort Smith on March 26.

In the June 19 phone call, Brockovich said, "We are coming back and we are still investigating and we have no intention of abandoning the community."

Brockovich also promised that her team would be returning to Fort Smith in July, "either the 26th, 27th, 28th. (We're trying) to get everyone scheduled together and what would be most convenient." Calls to Brockovich have gone unanswered for the last two days, though she previously told The City Wire to call her personal cell phone anytime.

Keith said her concern now is that testing to insure the public is protecting from harmful vapors or chemicals will not be undertaken by Noland or attorneys who may come to represent other residents.

"The local attorneys are just concerned about getting their 33 and a third. That's what I'm upset about. And I wouldn't care who did it as long as the numbers got checked. Whirlpool (now) knows an independent person won't come in and check for that kind of stuff."

Noland said his law firm does have a consultant on retainer to handle environmental testing.

"We do have a consulting geologist that we have worked with in multiple cases and we will be consulting with him throughout the process, but as far as specifics, we haven't made up on mind on specifics (about what to test)."

It is unclear when the lawsuit may go to trial, though Noland has said that he has been in contact with counsel representing Whirlpool.

"We're going to amend that complaint soon. We've been in communication with (attorneys representing) Whirlpool. We'll see where it goes. We are open to negotiating with them. That's it."